Pittsburgh comes across as a bridge to elsewhere


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The trend of naming bridges after famous native Pittsburghers picked up momentum last weekend with the freshly minted David McCullough Bridge (born the 16th Street Bridge).

Mr. McCullough is obviously worthy of our admiration. He's a brilliant writer and historian. His endless fascination with the American story has enriched the national conversation and deepened our appreciation of what it means to be an American.

On top of that, and this is a rarity, he's still alive to appreciate the honor. I am happy that my wife and I had the good sense to show up at the Heinz History Center for his charming, wise speech, which reflected a man of grace and good cheer. Plus, the cupcakes were first-rate.

But as I was listening to Dave, I got to thinking, which is invariably a dangerous thing. A native son, Mr. McCullough said the city will always be in him, as he acknowledged that he left Pittsburgh 60 years ago in his college years. That put me in mind of the three other people honored with Downtown bridges. Like Mr. McCullough, two of them, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson, left at the earliest opportunity, well before they made it -- or, perhaps more to the point, to make it.

I don't want any of these distinguished people to take what I'm about to say personally, and I'm quite certain Warhol wouldn't. A residency requirement might be too severe, but shouldn't we insist that having at least one legal drink while living here be a minimum essential for having a bridge named after you?

It's clear what's at play here: that sense of civic inferiority again. A small-town grasp for reflected glory has led us to honor people who got the hell out of Pittsburgh at the earliest opportunity. Bridges? Would it not be more appropriate to name exit ramps after these escapees -- I mean, great Americans?

(New Jersey, by the way, got it right. It chose turnpike rest areas to honor great New Jerseyans to allow for the fact that people don't really want to stay.)

I thought we were worried about keeping our talented young people here. What message are we sending with this bridge stuff? I'll tell you -- we're saying: Leave, make it big and you could get a bridge, although we're running out of good ones. Stay, and you have an outside shot at a statue at best.

The fourth bridge honoree, Roberto Clemente, did indeed come here and was a world-class success. But he did not come by choice. Figuratively speaking, he came with a gun to his head. He just happened to work for the Pirates and, in that day, couldn't leave to play baseball elsewhere if he wanted. Now, I'm not suggesting we name the jail after the Great One, but you get my point.

And the point is: Is it not possible to name a bridge after a great Pittsburgher who hung in there, toughed it out and maybe made it to Social Security here? Or someone who, while not born here, came, made a big splash and hung around for more than a week as an adult?

Some, like George Westinghouse, fit that description, but George didn't get a prime Downtown spot. And as you well know, when it comes to having a bridge named after you, the three most important considerations are: location, location and location.

I'm all for honoring native Pittsburghers who have had an enormous impact on society. But shouldn't we prize Pittsburghers who exhibit fidelity and commitment to our lovable provincial outpost over those who take the easy way out and respond to the cheap siren song of East Coast razzle-dazzle?

One of the few monuments dedicated to a Pittsburgher who was born, lived and died here is the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler in PPG Plaza. It's a shame we couldn't have heard his or her acceptance speech. But talk about a death well lived. Talk about capturing a city's aspirations. Talk about embodying the Pittsburgh ethic. Talk about sticking it out in thick and thin, in strikes and gutter balls, with no thought of publicity and glory, with a firm, rooted, set-in-concrete devotion to Pittsburgh.

Why should we not apply the same standards to bridges?

opinion_commentary - intelligencer

Peter Leo of Squirrel Hill, a retired Post-Gazette columnist, can be reached at peterleo11@comcast.net.Brian O'Neill is off today.


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